Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth and autism?

The idea for this project started to take shape at a meeting in 2008 with a special needs teacher, who mentioned that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, autistic children often enjoy classical myth. I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether – as a classicist who researches, and loves, classical myth – there was anything I could contribute. I started this blog to report on my progress which was often sporadic until the launch of the Warsaw-based European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-21) to trace the role of classics in children’s culture.

My key contribution to the project is an exploration of classics in autistic children’s culture, above all by producing myth-themed activities for autistic children. This blog shares my progress, often along Herculean paths.

Friday, 30 November 2018

From Hercules to CIRSIE on December 6th - notice on paper concerned with turning classical myth into a learning opportunity for autistic children

As I've reported briefly on this blog already - and a more detailed report is forthcoming! - I've recently spoken about my Herculean resources for use with autistic children to two distinct audiences.

One was a group of experts in autism, in the Adam Room at Roehampton. The other was a group of classicists at a conference at the University of Reading.

In addition, earlier this week I discussed the resources in a class with my second year Myths and Mythology students. And, above all, I went into a local primary school's autism unit last month and did some activities with students there to pilot-test the resources. I'll say more about these activities soon. The reason I'm posting now is as follows.

Next week, I shall be sharing the resources with a different audience again. I shall be giving a paper to CIRSIE: The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Special and Inclusive Education at Roehampton. I'm excited at the prospect of receiving their expert feedback. If you'd like to read my abstract, and find out about the date, venue etc, please click the link here.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

How Classics might reshape the - autistic - world: notes from a conference at Reading University in October 2018

I am writing this posting during a lively time for my autism and classical myth project. On Tuesday of last week, I spent an afternoon in the Adam Room at Roehampton with a group of experts on autism, including two people – Rita Jordan and Nicola Grove – whose work has been instrumental to this blog and whom I’ve cited many times. Tomorrow (Friday 12th October), I shall be involved in a pilot study, at a local school, of the first set of resources I’ve written. Last Saturday, I spoke on my project – this time to a group of Classicists at a conference at Reading: Ancient World and Modern Societies: How Classics help reshape our world.

Here is a written-up version of the notes I prepared for the event. On the day, I departed from them but I covered pretty-well everything here.

It’s an honour to be here! It was at an event at Roehampton around a year ago that I met Andreas Gavrielatos [the organiser] when I was on the same programme as him, and others here today. That event was trying to find ways to – well – make the world a better place via Classics. There were two focuses. One was how we can find ways to create a diverse curriculum – to meet the needs of more students and potential students than is often the case in this, still, most elitist of subjects. The other was think about ways of reaching into the world – to make a difference. 

One thing that came out is that there is a lot we can tap into here. For instance, many people are engaging with Classics, without necessarily knowing they are. One way in question is through video games. Classical myths are frequently an aspect of video games, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes not so. Seeking to understand this key feature of contemporary classical reception will help move on Classical Reception Studies. It might also do something else – something that links into the topic of this current event - namely to help us find ways, via Classics, to make a difference to the world.

What I am going to discuss this morning concerns a project that I have been developing for a decade or so – and which I am about to take to a particular public – a public of autistic children. When I spoke at the event at Roehampton a year ago, I was getting ready to write a series of activities forautistic children based on the Choice of Hercules. I wrote these in February 2018. During the summer, thanks to funding from my University, I was able to engage a researcher, Effrosyni Kostara – to write a guide for teachers to accompany it. Effie, who was also at the Roehampton event last year, has been the perfect person to write the guide, not least as someone with a classical degree and an Education background.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, I ran an event – with ICS public engagement funding – at Roehampton. This was a workshop for experts on autism to discuss my resources.  I’ll say more on this soon. I’ll do this because of what their feedback was on the resources, and also because what they said is relevant to this event, one of whose goals, as stated in the blurb, is to bring together those interested in how antiquity ‘has the potential to improve aspects of everyday life.’

Being at this event is very timely for me. Next week, Effie and I will be going into a local primary school with an autism unit for a pilot study of the activities – with a view to running more in the future – so if you know of a school that might be interested, let me know!

The activities are around this artefact: a representation of the episode where Hercules encounters two women who represent two very different paths in life. As currently set out in the activities, I’m envisaging some colouring in being done by the participants.

The autism expects didn’t like this activity because of a concern that children colour in too much at school. After reflecting about what they said, I have decided, for now at least, to retain the activity, and make clearer than I have to date why I’ve opted for the colouring in. One reason is this: it will potentially help with a sub-goal of the activities, namely to give an opportunity for the children – if they want to take it up – to learn about ancient Greece. The urban centres of ancient Greece would have been colourful places – sculpture wouldn’t be white, at it has come down to us – and as it is received in most postclassical architecture.[1]

Also, I do think that, via colouring in, there is an opportunity to look – each in our own way – at the artefact, and to bring something of ourselves to it. This is something that I was struck by – way beyond what had anticipated - while I spoke about the resources at a conference in Warsaw earlier this year, in May. Do, please, do some colouring in now – or throughout the day if you’d like.

I will end with one thing that came out of the event with the autism experts. I was asked ‘why Classics?’, ‘why classical myth?’ and ‘why Hercules’? – beyond the fact that classical myth is something that I enthuse about – although this can, itself, be a way to engage others as we discussed. But would any other set of stories do as well, they, asked, for example Winnie the Pooh.

The question bothered me: there is a tendency among classicists to see Classics as some kind of gift that we give to the public to – well – make them better citizens (cf. e.g. Boris Johnson on the potential ofclassics to end knife crime). This approach concerns me – it is as though Classics is some privileged space that ‘we’ open up to others. And when we try to say, as classicists, why Classics should be used in school education we say vague things about how it helps critical thinking and how it is at the roots of Western Civilisation.

Here are the two responses to these concerns. Firstly, Classics is part of culture – and one thing I am seeking to do is to open up Classics to a public whose engagement with shared culture can be challenging. Secondly, a turning point on Tuesday came when I described Hercules as this figure bears on the resources.

I described how Hercules is at home in the wilds – his own space – where he is capable of things others cannot manage – and where he needs to learn the rules of each new scenario he experiences, each time having to find a new way to deal with a fresh situation. But whereas he keeps managing to overcome obstacles in the wilds, when he gets to civilisation, something tends to go badly wrong.

The response from an autistic academic was: ‘that sounds like being autistic.’ He had said that what has always interested him in fantasy and other forms of literature are villains, outsiders, monsters and so forth. We discussed the potential of Hercules as one who is an outsider yet also the great insider as a hero, god and civiliser.

I have put copies of the activities and the guide on each table.  More work is needed – for example there is too much currently on resolving hardships – and not enough perhaps on how the activities might engage the imagination. Feedback is very welcome!

The responses to my paper were really helpful, including from the Reading students who were present, one of whom, a student on the autism spectrum, mentioned several autistic societies with whom I might make contact. I also learned about a school in Reading with whom I might make contact for a potential pilot study of the resources – and I had a wonderful conversation about the possibility of running activities in the Ure Museum.

I am writing up my notes on the Thursday after the paper at Reading. It’s tomorrow, Friday, that I will be visiting the local school for the pilot study!

[1] The photograph heading this posting was taken this morning by me at the British Museum. I’ve opted for this because it seeks to give a sense of just how colourful ancient art could be – in contrast to the whiteness, exemplified by the figure also shown in the photo, that we see today. The reconstruction is founded on a 19th-century reconstruction of part of the Parthenon frieze.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Autism and classical myth event with experts - about to happen

A while back I shared some really good news I'd received namely that I'd gained some funding from the Institute of Classical Studies - from their Public Engagement Fund - for a workshop with autism experts. The event in question is about to happen! On Tuesday 2 October! I'm going to be welcoming a group of specialists, including those whose work has been foundational to my project on autism and classical myth, to Roehampton and specially to the Adam Room, the home of the chimneypiece which is the focus of my first set of resources for autistic children. I'll be writing a report on the event for the ICS - and also a post for their blog. I aim to do this asap after the event to capture it's energy and I'll share the link via this blog. I'm so excited to be sharing what I've been developing with a group of wonderful people. To think - we'll all be together talking about autism and myth - with Hercules making his choice in our presence. I'm so deeply grateful to the ICS supporting and enabling the event.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Staging the upturned world: A Midsummer Night's Dream for autistic children

In June, I broke the news - here - that myself and colleagues had been successful in our application to host events for the 2018 Being Human Festival. I included the following piece of information:

"With the most explicit fit with my autism and classical mythology project...we will be working with the Flute Theatre, who will stage an immersive performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for children on the autistic spectrum. I’ll say more on this in due course, including where I write about who the Flute are and about the work they do."

Here - now - I'll say some more as promised. The Flute Theatre is a troupe of actors who, led by the Kelly Hunter, stage productions of Shakespeare for autistic audiences. We'll be collaborating with them during their run of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London, from (and whence the photo at the head of this posting) 5-24 November 2018.

The collaboration will be as follows - along with two colleagues, Drs Helen Slaney and Susanne Greenhalgh, I'll be taking part in a participatory workshop at the Orange Tree in the morning before one of the performances -  on 23 November. Kelly Hunter will introduce the techniques she uses with her audiences - and she will show how and why they've been such a success.

To quote from the blurb on our booking site (link below):
Shakespeare is often regarded as linguistically challenging and culturally elitist, but this does not have to be the case when the plays are performed. Approaching "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from a non-neurotypical perspective gives an extra dimension to its upturned world of magic, mischief, delusions, and desires. Flute Theatre's approach taps into the multisensory undercurrents of dramatic literature, making this workshop at the same time a fascinating exploration of theatrical practice.

If you'll be in or near London in November and would like to join us, there's more information here, including on how to book. I'll be blogging on it as well...


Friday, 21 September 2018

Turning classical myth into a learning opportunity for autistic children - in Lincoln, Nebraska

Several of my postings over recent months have included prominent buildings in cities around the world - always for a reason that is, somehow, relevant to this blog. This particular posting kicks off with a photograph of one of the landmarks of Lincoln, Nebraska - the State Capitol. Here's why this particular city is, now, of relevance to my blog.

For just over a month I have been hoping - and itching - to share the following proposal for a conference paper. It's for a panel on "Learning Disabilities in the Classics Classroom" organised by Clara Bosak-Schroeder and Krishni Burns for the 2019 CAMWS (Classical Association of the Middle West and South) conference to be held in Lincoln.

I sent off my abstract around the middle of last month and have recently received the news that the panel has been accepted!

After lots of correspondence with US-based people for some years now in relation to my autism and mythology project, I'm very much looking forward to this opportunity to talk, in the US, about what I'm doing and planning.

Here, then, is my proposal.  

What would Hercules do? Turning classical myth into a learning opportunity for autistic children

Elitism runs deep in classics. Yet classics is changing, including through the work of democratically-minded classicists who are to seeking to surmount the structural and historical factors that perpetuate classics as a subject that excludes particular groups. This paper will concern a project I have developed to bring classics to a particular public: autistic children.

I shall briefly introduce the rationale behind my project, which I began after a meeting in 2008 with a Special Needs teacher who told me that, in the experience of herself and her colleagues, autistic children engage especially well with learning about an aspect of the classical world, namely its myths. I began thinking that this might be the case, and, then, started to wonder how I could contribute as a classicist whose key interest is in classical myth. My academic life was transformed from this moment, leading, for instance to a role as a disability co-coordinator and a blogger: https://myth-autism.blogspot.com/. Indeed, my paper will include a brief recommendation of blogging: for immediate dissemination of research, for reaching a wider public, and for the opportunity to develop a more reflective voice to complement the traditional, results-focused, voice that dominates academic writing.
Above all, I shall discuss the first of three sets of activities that I have developed to encourage autistic children to negotiate issues that, challenging for any child, can be especially difficult for those with autism. These activities centre around Hercules, a figure who, I shall show, has particularly rich potential to engage autistic ways of thinking and being. The activities are part of a European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood: The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges  http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/  (2016-2021).
The activities centre on the choice that Hercules is invited to make at a crisis point, when, on arriving at a strange place, he encounters two women who represent divergent paths in life.  As I shall show, the activities (eight in total) take the user through the episode: from the arrival at a strange place, to noticing certain things about the place, to noticing the two women. There are activities where users reflect on what the hero might be experiencing in his interactions with each woman. There are also activities which shift the perspective to the two women – and on how they seek to engage him. Then, finally, users move to the hero’s choice. As I shall show, Hercules chooses one path – yet he considers the other path as well. There is rich potential here for exploring different perspectives on a given issue.
Each path, as I shall show, will lead to a particular kind of future, one involving a life of pleasure, the other a life of struggle. Each user of the resources can choose a particular path – and they can do this by thinking about what Hercules would do, potentially helping themselves develop a theory of mind. Or they can make their own choice, and thus think about how their present can turn into the future.
As I shall set out, each activity is accompanied by educational goals which will help teachers decide which activity to use according to their goals and their students' abilities. These are divided in relation to the revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy of 'cognitive,' and 'affective,' goals, while a third part deals with the students’ social skills and how these are promoted through the activities.
I shall then share the outcome of a workshop, held autumn 2018, with specialists in autism research to seek expert feedback on the activities. When I come to market these resources more widely, the collaboration and endorsement of these professionals will be integral. I hope, too, that they will take up these resources for use in a therapeutic context.
After this, I shall discuss a pilot study of the activities with pupils aged 5-11 in a specialist autistic unit in a London state primary school. I shall end by outlining my plans for further pilot studies.
The Hercules activities I have developed are intended to be inclusive and thought-provoking – and fun. They offer an opportunity for autistic children to think about such matters as how to cope with new scenarios and change, and how to engage in decision-making. They also offer a gateway to classics for those whose access to shared aspects of culture can be particularly challenging.

Work cited
Anderson, L.W. et al. (ed.) 2001. A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Pearson.


Friday, 10 August 2018

What would Hercules do? What happened when I went on an interactive mythological adventure

When I was towards the end of primary school, I heard about a type of fiction that intrigued me – the trouble was that I felt that it was not for me on two grounds. One was that the age range listed was younger than I was. At this time I was finding that literature I’d loved was no longer ‘speaking’ to me quite as it had previously. The second was that it looked to be very much for boys. When I had previously tried to take part in cultural activities gendered as male it had not gone well. 

But I did very much like the sound of this type of fiction. Here the reader would not follow a book from beginning through middle to end but could find their own path based on the outcome of a dice throw or their own choice.

I have finally, today, been reading such a book: Hercules and His 12 Labors: An Interactive Mythological Adventure written by Anika Fajardo and illustrated by Nadine Takvorian for the series You Choose:Ancient Greek Myths.[1]
I found out about the book when I was ordering another one, on a similar topic. This other book, currently out of stock, is mentioned at the end of this posting. 

I began reading hoping that the book could have the potential to ‘speak’ to me, including because of how it seemed to resonate with my work to date on autism and classical myth. I am invariably frustrated at books for children – or anyone – which narrate classical myth as though there is a 'true' version of any particular story. This goes against one of the most exciting things about classical myth – the flexibility of the particular stories – their fluidity – the way in which each teller creates the myth afresh. So, a book where the reader can find their own route had me intrigued.

What is more, the book’s topic has a really good fit with the specific topic of the first set of activities for autistic children that I have put together. These resources centre around a decision that Hercules had to make at a crisis point. Each path will lead to a particular kind of future for Hercules, one a life of pleasure, the other a life of struggle. Each user of the resources can choose a particular path – and they can do this if they want by thinking about what Hercules would perhaps do, potentially helping stimulate theory of mind. Or they can make their own choice, potentially helping them think about how the present can turn into the future.

The book is also about choosing. It doesn’t deal with the specific episode that my activities involve. Instead, the reader encounters Hercules as he embarks on his twelve labours. As the reader gets to a particular point they make a choice between what they, as Hercules, should do next. Here is what happened to me the first time I made a choice. I decided that, as Hercules, I would opt for a way of dealing with particular tasks that seemed to be more in keeping with the kind of choice that a modern reader might make. I ended up being killed and directed to begin again or turn to a section at the back of the book giving information about who Hercules was.

I returned to the start, and again, the choice I made got me killed. This happened two more times. In all I was killed by the Amazons after I tried to reason with their queen, by the Stymphalian Birds’ knife-like feathers, by the followers of Eurystheus, and by the Hydra’s teeth.

Then I realised what the book was trying to do. It was presenting me with a series of choices where, each time, the user either follows the myth and moves to another stage in the career of the hero or does something different and is killed. Thus, the book does not involve choosing as I envisage it in my activities – where diverse choices are each paralleled in sources for Hercules, and where the user can, though their own choices, create their own way though the story.

Thus the book is taking a different approach to choosing in relation to Hercules' adventures from the one I am taking. That said, the book might have a use in relation to the preliminary activity I have devised where the children use existing resources to build up an awareness of Heracles and classical myth that might deepen their appreciation of the activities. 

I wonder whether there might be potential for a different kind of interactive book where taking a 'wrong' choice doesn’t lead invariably to the hero’s labours and life coming to an abrupt end: where, for instance, a decision to reason with the Amazon queen rather than steal her girdle equips the hero to continue to a fresh stage in his career. 

I’m waiting for the arrival of another interactive book concerning Hercules, which my fellow Our Mythical Childhood researcher, Ayelet Peer, has recommended to me: Brandon Terrell’s, Greek Mythology's Twelve Labors of Hercules: A Choose Your Path Book.[2] I look forward to seeing how this book enables the reader to find their own path through Herculean mythology.

[1] Capstone 2017. 

[2] Terrell, Brandon, Greek Mythology's Twelve Labors of Hercules: A Choose Your Path Book (Can You Survive? series) Lake 7 Creative 2013.